Name-calling aside, the author makes a strong case against rising public ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
The Age of American Unreason
by Susan Jacoby,
Pantheon 2008, 356 pages.
In 1942, soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a “fireside chat” on the war with Japan. The president urged his listeners to locate a world map, so they could better follow his remarks. So strong was the public’s interest in the geography of the Pacific that at least one Manhattan bookstore quickly sold its entire new stock of 2,000 maps. Author Susan Jacoby offers this anecdote as an illustration of how American intellectual curiosity has declined over the past 6 1/2 decades. Imagine any politician making such a request of an audience today, she writes—or a populace that would comply so eagerly.
Instead, as the latest studies reveal, Americans’ grasp of world geography and foreign languages continues to weaken. In 2006, according to a National Geographic-Roper survey, 63% of young Americans could not locate Iraq on a map. What is perhaps worse, yet closely related to such impoverished knowledge, is “a public that considers conspicuous displays of learning a form of snobbery.” In The Age of American Unreason, Jacoby argues that U.S. citizens are not only ignorant, they’re proud of it. In an environment in which intellectuals are scorned and politicians strive to be “just folks,” people are reading less and playing more, while math, science, and analytical thinking are falling by the wayside.
The culprits she identifies are many, ranging from poor education to a nonstop barrage of media, “infotainment” distractions and the politicized agenda of conservative religious groups. While much of this may be familiar territory, Jacoby treats these issues at length, urging Americans to wake up to social trends that are increasingly hostile to rational thinking. How is it, she asks, that “intelligent design” has gained such popular support despite rejection by the National Academy of Sciences, which identifies this creation theory as a religiously based belief with no scientific basis? And what is the long-term effect of Americans enclosing themselves behind self-contained worlds of i-Pods, cell phones, and DVD players, so that college dorms today are eerily quiet, bereft of noisy gatherings and debate?
By way of explanation, Jacoby traces U.S intellectual developments through the centuries. These range from the country’s 18th-century founding by self-professed “men of science” like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, through 19th-century scientific advances, Cold War debates over communism and socialism, the 1960s antiwar movement, up to the present-day “culture of distraction.” While intellectual pursuits have been championed throughout America’s history, anti-intellectual forces have been equally powerful, contributing to a society in which 40% of adults read not a single book over the course of a year.
Jacoby’s arguments would be more persuasive if she tempered them with greater objectivity and balance. Too often, conservative Republicans and religious fundamentalists are denigrated as “cranks” and “hucksters” or purveyors of “wacky” ideas and “junk thought.” Television, the Internet and other forms of media also come under fierce attack. If her aim is to engage in discussion people of all philosophical leanings, name-calling may not be the best approach. Yet to Jacoby, getting angry— and a little nasty— is just what is needed. Rationalists have remained aloof from public debate too long, deeming concepts like intelligent design not worthy of rebuttal, she argues; scientists must start speaking out on issues like global warming, stem cell research and political interference with scientific findings. She urges politicians to shake Americans out of their complacent ignorance, and for members of the public to assume more responsibility. Jacoby doubts that any current presidential candidate has the courage to tell the truth— that Americans “have become too lazy to learn what we need to know to make sound public decisions.” Yet this kind of frank talk is clearly what she advocates throughout The Age of American Unreason. While her bombast is unappealing, Susan Jacoby ultimately makes a strong case against the continued dumbing down of U.S. society.
Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.